Plan to invest Hawaiian Home Lands funds in geothermal power plant draws scrutiny

“I say ‘a’ole ... Now’s not the time to be risking anything."
Published: Feb. 22, 2023 at 7:50 PM HST|Updated: Feb. 23, 2023 at 5:37 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The Hawaiian Homes Commission is mulling a proposal to invest $2 million to develop a geothermal project on their lands using money that was appropriated to build homes.

In a letter to the DHHL, state Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said investing in geothermal will generate more income for the trust to build more homes for Native Hawaiians.

“What we want to try to do is provide options ... so that people can see how they might be able to use a $600 million as a base and grow it with projects that can bring in additional revenue,” said Dela Cruz.

But some beneficiaries and homesteaders said the plan is too risky, especially using money that is supposed to help reduce the DHHL’s waitlist of 28,000 Native Hawaiians.

“It might work. But as a commissioner, I’m not willing to take that risk,” Hawaiian Homes Commissioner Dennis Neves said on Tuesday.

“We have $600 million, and we have a plan. We need to move forward with that plan. We need to put as many Hawaiians as we can in homes.”

Added homesteader Homelani Schaedel: “I say ‘a’ole ... Now’s not the time to be risking anything.”

The Hawaiian Homes Commission on Tuesday voted not to support the proposal.

But on Wednesday, it said it would take another look at the plan next month.

Supporters said a New Zealand company IDG — which has developed geothermal projects with the Indigenous Maori people — is interested in partnering with the DHHL.

They said that if the project gets the green light, the DHHL and IDG can apply for up to $150 million in federal energy grants.

“This is a real step toward economic self-sufficiency for DHHL to own a renewable green energy, firm power, that benefits the Home Land’s economic security,” said former state Sen. Malama Solomon.

But building a geothermal plant has other political and regulatory headaches.

To build a traditional geothermal plant, the DHHL, and its partners will also have to build an undersea cable from the Big Island to Oahu, where most of the demand is.

The last time the state tried to do that a decade ago, the price tag was about $1 billion.

“Any large energy project is risky. And this one coming with all the sensitivities about land and geothermal and Hawaiian rights boggles my mind,” said investigative reporter and blogger Ian Lind.

Lind also criticized Dela Cruz for attempting to raid the DHHL’s funds for his own pet project.

“To a knowledgeable observer from the outside who’s seen this kind of muscling in by legislators before, this looks like an abuse of the position,” said Lind.

But Dela Cruz said the DHHL’s strategic plan allows it to invest up to 10% of the $600 million on special projects. He also cited an opinion from the Attorney General’s office which said it could invest in “geothermal-related matters” so long as it generates income to reduce the DHHL’s waitlist.

He added that DHHL could build a more state-of-the-art geothermal plant that produced green hydrogen as fuel that can be shipped from the Big Island to Oahu, making an undersea cable unnecessary.